ARJA KESKI-NUMMI. Our Devil’s Island

Aug 13, 2016


The Guardian recently ran a story regarding its Freedom Of Information request on boat turn backs, the subsequent denial of material, and its appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) to review the FOI decision. At some point during the AAT hearing the Guardian found itself locked out of part of the hearing on putative “national security grounds”. This week the Guardian reported on some 200 incident reports from the Nauru offshore processing centre, many regarding the 49 children and the abuse of them by those who are supposed to be their “protectors”.

And the response from our politicians? They say that secrecy is essential to stop the boats, and it is the Nauru government and not Australia that has failed the asylum seekers exiled to Australia’s version of Devil’s Island.

If we are not finally moved to demand a more humane system then we truly are sleepwalkers.

The sad fact is that on this issue Australia’s political class has failed the nation – secrecy is the hallmark of authoritarian dictatorships, not an open democratic society. Shipping people to a country that is almost wholly dependent on Australia, simply because they were seeking asylum in our country, is a shameful shirking of our duties and an insult to a country that is so dependent on us.

Not only should we know what is happening and what is being done in our name; to stand by, and not ask, makes us complicit in these acts of unbearable cruelty.

The bipartisan policy being pursued is a policy of desperation. In this, its latest iteration, people seeking sanctuary are turned back into Indonesian waters and those few who manage to make it into Australia’s maritime zones are shipped to Nauru and Manus Island with one promise: that they will never come to Australia.

Why are we so afraid of people seeking sanctuary who arrive by boat? What makes it OK to ignore the suffering of these people?

In the last decades of the 19th century an innocent man in France was sent to Devil’s Island – it came to be known as the Dreyfus Affair and still today the legacy of the Dreyfus Affair reverberates in France. French people remember the anti Semitism of the time; the secret military tribunal, so secret that not even Dreyfus was allowed to know the evidence against him; and the power of the State to ignore what it did not want to acknowledge (that an innocent man had been condemned and sent to the worst possible outpost of its penal system), by means of a legal conspiracy.

How can we not see that we have now made our own Devil’s Island, on Nauru and Manus? This is where we send people when we want them to be “out of sight and out of mind”, so that they can become invisible and not our problem.What made the French State relent were the brave actions of a few who never stopped working towards his release. One of them, Emile Zola, wrote a seminal piece on the injustices that had been perpetrated – “J’Accuse” and was prosecuted for treason as a result.

We are not much different today. Dreyfus was one man – on Nauru there are some 2000 innocent souls – held in limbo where legislation such as the Border Protection Act makes it impossible to know what the true nature of the conditions on Nauru are. We do not know what was done with those incident reports – were they filed and forgotten? Were they investigated? What has happened since? We deserve to know when this policy is being implemented for our “protection”.

At some point this farce of a policy has to change. Its cruelty towards people who have committed no offence is indescribable. The right to seek asylum is enshrined both in our domestic legislation and in international law. The damage we are inflicting on our fellow human beings is unconscionable, and if our policy makers believe it is OK because they are not citizens we should all be concerned.

When it is considered acceptable to deny basic justice to one group of people and to treat them differently, it is not long before such sentiments become acceptable in other areas as well.  A clear example is the latest call for repeal of section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, that gives some protections against hurtful and racist comments towards people often unable to defend themselves.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The securitisation of our immigration policy is wrong. We have good procedures for the reception and processing of asylum seekers. Some the processes may need to be tweaked to make them more efficient, but our systems are more than capable of handling such numbers. Numbers which pale to insignificance when compared with the numbers Europe is facing, particularly Germany and Sweden, and who are both dealing with these issues in a more positive and constructive way.

Resettling people who are refugees from Nauru will not open the flood gates – that is clear from the last time that large numbers were resettled from Nauru in 2006 under John Howard. We can do it again.

The government should act now before a greater human tragedy occurs on Nauru.

Arja Keski-Nummi was formerly First Assistant Secretary in the International and Refugee Division of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. 




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